Researchers identify fatty-acid oxidation as additional source of nutrients in the placenta

DALLAS – June 2, 2003 – Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas have helped discover that an expectant mother’s placenta nourishes her fetus by oxidizing fatty acids in addition to providing the developing fetus with glucose – previously believed to be the placenta’s only energy source.

The findings will appear in the June issue of the American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism and were presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies’ recent meeting in Seattle. The study, which evaluated tissue samples taken from human placentas, is currently online.

In mammals, the placenta provides fetuses with the nutrients they need for growth and development and acts as an organ for the elimination of fetal waste. The team of researchers from UT Southwestern, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn., found that fatty-acid oxidation is critical for the placenta to work efficiently and for normal fetal development to occur.

“This discovery confirms that the placental pathway is important,” said Dr. Michael J. Bennett, professor of pathology and pediatrics at UT Southwestern and member of the study team. “Our long-term goal is to fully define the pathway of how we get energy from fatty acids.”

Mapping the energy pathway could lead to new treatments for low-birth-weight or small babies, said Dr. Bennett. Previously, most fetal physiologists held that glucose – whose supply is consistent, constant and reliable through maternal circulation – provided all placental and fetal energy needs. Although it was known that fatty acids, or lipids, are actively transported from the placenta, little research had been done to assess the role of fatty acids as a fetal metabolic fuel.

The study’s findings also could lead to a better understanding of potential links between fetuses that don’t properly oxidize fatty acids and mothers who suffer from diseases such as preeclampsia, acute fatty liver of pregnancy (one of the most severe and life-threatening complications in pregnancy that often appears in the third trimester) and HELLP syndrome (hemolysis, elevated liver function and low platelets).

“We are hoping to expand the study to look at small babies to see if there are other genetic mutations responsible,” Dr. Bennett said. “This is the extreme end of the spectrum.”

Dr. Dinesh Rakheja, a postdoctoral trainee in pathology at UT Southwestern, also worked on the National Institutes of Health-funded study.


Media Contact: Staishy Bostick Siem
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